[previous chapter] [start from the beginning] “Ugh! Why am I so tired?”

I laughed. “Baby, you’re always like this when we come back from the beach. You don’t like it here nearly as much as you like it there. You’re fighting Dull Normal.”

She hit me in the ribs. Which told me all I needed to know.

“At least, you have a mighty fine tan to parade around.”

“You goof.”

Yeah, she talks tough. But deep down I know how much she likes the way I treat her. I think she found me very different from all the other guys she’d known. In a good way, I mean.

It had not been love at first sight between us. Certainly not at her end. I always thought I was reasonably good looking, but evidently I wasn’t her type. She liked men who were tall and muscular, with large shoulders. I’m tall, but that’s about it. I still have muscles, but let’s just say they got buried a bit.

I’m also a lot quieter, she says, than her previous fellows. And I like to talk after sex, not snore. At first she thought it was just a trick, something I did to impress her. But no. I really enjoy it.

Must be my feminine side. Or maybe I picked it up by working among nurses, who knows. I also like giving her books to read. Like John Grisham novels. She’d never read books before if she could avoid it. Call it my contribution to her intellectual edification.

Claire was still young, but already she’d had a long life where men were concerned. And not the happy kind of long life, either, though she hadn’t quite come to terms with that, despite the HIV diagnosis. When she fled home at the age of 17 and a half, she had already been sexually active for a few years, hiding most of her boyfriends from her parents.

Life at home for Claire wasn’t particularly horrible. Contrary to many young girls who run away to hide in the big city, she was neither beaten nor sexually molested by her family. She had one uncle who always made off-colour jokes but he’d never actually done anything. He’d never touched her, never tried to kiss her. But he’d always been saying shit like “I like how your sweater fits you, Claire. Real nice, real nice…”

What a creep. But as to her parents, they were reasonably decent; they’d married young after getting pregnant accidentally with her big brother, and they’d had her four years later. Her brother had left, also at 17, to go work in the oil fields in Alberta, seeing as there was not much future in Abitibi for a strong kid who didn’t like school.

Her parents were worried that she might repeat their own mistake and get pregnant too early, so they kept a pretty close eye on her, which she found suffocating. It was bad enough to be a teenager in that forsaken region where nothing interesting ever happened without being cloistered on top of everything. Claire dreamed of the bright lights and one day she skipped school and hitchhiked to Montreal.

And that, in itself, was an adventure and a half alright. There is only one road between Val-d’Or and the civilized world, and it goes through the Vérendrye national park, which goes on for bloody ever, nothing but winding roads with not much to see except trucks coming the other way and signs warning you to watch the hell out for wildlife.

The guy she’d hitched a ride with was pretty nice. She’d concocted a story about having to visit her aunt in St-Jérôme, who was waiting for her to go on a trip to Europe. He asked about her age, and she said she was 19 and offered to give him her aunt’s name and phone number in case he wanted to check her story. Claire was a decent enough actress or the guy sympathized with her need to see the world or maybe a bit of both, in any event he did not call her bluff and let her hop aboard his truck. He was going to the old airport in Mirabel and offered to let her off at the Porte du Nord road stop just north of St-Jérôme. She could easily find her way from there, she assured him. She had directions.

But of course, once there, she didn’t call her aunt. Instead she called her parents to let them know she was OK and wouldn’t be coming back.

“But Claire, we need to know where you are! We should come get you right now…”

“No, Mom, you won’t. I’m almost 18 years old now and you can’t stop me. I’m ready to live my life on my own. And if you call the cops on me I promise when I turn 18 for real I will leave again and spend the rest of my life without speaking with you. If you leave me alone now, I will call you regularly and let you know how I’m doing.”

“Oh, Claire, you’re so hard on us. What did we do to make you so mad?”

Claire hesitated. Part of her wanted to run back to her mom but the other half was pushing her to make the break she’d been dreaming about for so long.

“Mom, I’m not mad. I’m just ready to be on my own. Please understand. I’ll be careful, I promise.”

“But what are you going to do? Where are you going to live? Where will you get the money you need for rent, groceries, clothes?”

“I’ll be fine, Mom. I’ll find a job in a store downtown, I’m sure I can do it. I already have experience selling clothes at Banana Republic, I won’t have trouble finding something here. For now I can crash at the Y for a couple of nights, then I’ll look for an apartment. There are ads in the paper, I’ll find a roommate, I’ll be fine, I promise.”

There was silence on the line, then she could hear her mother sobbing quietly. “I don’t know what to say, Claire… Promise me you’ll be careful, OK? And that you’ll call again tomorrow?”

“OK, Mom. I will. I have to go now. Bye.”

She found a nice couple at the Porte du Nord restaurant and explained to them that she was a student in Montreal whose boyfriend had abandoned her after a party up in cottage country where he’d found a prettier girl to chase.

“What?” The woman was horrified. “What a jerk! We’re not going to Montreal but we can drop you off at the Cartier subway station in Laval-des-Rapides if you like. You can find your way downtown from there, right?”

“Oh yes, thank you so much!”

As luck would have it, she never did make it to the Y, for she met someone at that subway station that would turn her world around.

He was one of Abdul’s kids, since that subway station was in his area. He called himself Ray and spent most of his days in and out of that station looking for opportunities. Opportunities to sell drugs, opportunities to meet associates, opportunities to become friendly with lost girls who could be steered towards street prostitution with the help of the two previous kinds of opportunities.

Every now and then a girl came by who looked lost enough but not the kind to fall easily into street prostitution. These were always a challenge, but a good kind of challenge. At any rate, Ray enjoyed working them. It involved a fair bit of cajoling and seducing and outsmarting his prey, and he fancied himself the kind of fellow who was smooth enough to do that. He wasn’t particularly handsome but he loved girls and this gave him a certain magnetism.

He followed Claire inside the subway station. She wasn’t sure where she was going (try to find “downtown” on the subway map). She’d never been to Montreal and only knew about Sainte-Catherine Street. Unfortunately for her there’s no subway stop with that name on it so she had to guess where it might be. Little did she know the subway runs along the commercial strip. She picked Place-des-Arts station, since she’d heard of that place, and came out near a big public space and, to the east of that beacon of artistic accomplishment, a row of strip clubs and sex shops.

Ray immediately saw his opportunity and took it.

“Hi, you seem lost,” he said, in his friendliest voice.

Claire stiffened. “Why do you say that?”

“Because a nice young woman like you doesn’t belong on that side of Sainte-Catherine. You belong over there,” he pointed west, “where the nice shops are. Want me to show you?”

She wasn’t sure what to do, or say. He seemed all right, but she didn’t know him and of course like all girls from the far-flung regions she’d heard stories about girls like her disappearing… Whether the stories were true or not didn’t make much difference to Claire right at the moment. She wasn’t thinking about probabilities or statistics. She was thinking about survival, but also about making friends. She didn’t know which side of that equation this stranger fell on.

“Why would I go with you?”

Ray smiled. “Oh, you don’t have to come with me. You can just walk that way by yourself for about 10 blocks and you’ll be in the middle of shopping heaven. But since I’m going that way anyway, to meet my friend who works at the Gap, I’d be happy to show you around. I can tell you’re not from around here. I was just going to show you how friendly us Montreal men can be, that’s all.”

He saw she was hesitating. He held his hand out. “My name’s Ray. What’s yours?”

Claire had made up her mind.

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